Perfect Protest: The Political Subtlety of Fatima Al Qadiri’s Brute
by Liam Thomas
No matter how many times anonymous Twitter users will tell their favorite artists to “stick to the music,” the presence of political ideology in modern music is becoming almost as important as the music itself. In recent months, we’ve seen formerly apolitical artists like Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift voice their political opinions through social media, with Lana bashing Kanye West’s unfortunate headwear choices on Instagram and Swift urging her fans to vote in the crucial midterm elections. Politics and music have always been intrinsically tied together; artists like Public Enemy and Bob Dylan have used their platform to speak essential truths to power in the past. But the work of these artists possessed a certain urgency, a vital countercultural energy that offered scathing critiques of a deeply flawed political system rarely found in modern music. Today, we have the 30 Days, 30 Songs project, a running collection of lukewarm anti-Trump protest tracks that, like most attacks on the current president’s character and political inability, fall completely flat in the face of a man who doesn’t seem to have a capacity for shame. In the midst of all this political turmoil, one would expect artists to draw upon this confusion and craft projects that reflect it. However, with the exception of a few outstanding examples, (Kendrick Lamar, M.I.A), this potential is rarely realized.
This begs the question, what makes for effective protest music? How can artists draw from both the state of the world around them and their own personal experiences to speak urgent truths to power? For me, I believe there is no better example of this than Kuwaiti producer Fatima Al Qadiri’s 2016 anti-authoritarian experimental opus Brute. Every component of the project, from the stunning album art to the distinct sample choices, from the personal experiences that influenced the sound to the foreboding titles of each track, Brute stands as an unassailable example of how to effectively construct protest music. The album functions as a grime-influenced experimental condemnation of authoritarianism and militarized policing, taking a defined political stance founded in Qadiri’s personal experiences with police oppression and civil resistance.
What makes Brute such a universally resonant critique of the police state is the fact that Qadiri’s desire to make music was born out of political repression and dissonance, both in her home country of Kuwait and in the United States. But what marks the album as well-crafted protest music is the fact that with Brute, Fatima Al Qadiri isn’t necessarily trying to make “protest music” at all. As Qadiri described it in a 2016 interview with Thump magazine, “[Brute] is a meditation, but a very unpleasant one. Protest music is a call-to-action, and this is not a call-to-action because I don’t know what the action should be. I’m not offering any solutions, just saying that this is the reality.” In the complete opposite fashion as the recent 30 Days, 30 Songs project, Fatima Al Qadiri’s Brute doesn’t hurl epithets at any specific target, but it functions as an attempt to reflect the seriousness of a certain recurring issue in America. Brute embodies everything that protest music should aspire to be, because it isn’t telling us what’s wrong with the world, it’s showing us what’s wrong. Brute is Qadiri’s cold, stark, and caustic instrumental response to the over-militarization of America’s local police forces, and their subsequent abuse of this power. Qadiri has stated that a major influence for the concept of the project came from a heavily policed counterprotest she attended outside a 1999 IMF World Bank meeting: "I [had] never seen more cops in my entire life. There were cops on horses, on bicycles, on bikes, in cars, and helicopters. I had a very rude awakening; the illusions of American democracy were destroyed almost immediately." Al Qadiri’s personal experience with civil disobedience informs the instrumental atmosphere of the project, with the minor chord structures, synthesized choir vocals, and growling bass all culminating in a sound that feels subtextually representative of a protest gone horribly wrong. However, Al Qadiri doesn’t depend on atmosphere alone to get her point across.
Brute incorporates audio samples from three different sources at various points throughout its eleven track run, each of which addresses a different aspect of over-authoritarian policing. Qadiri incorporates these eerie audio samples of protests alongside sonic representations of them, (Long Range Acoustic Device, Sirens, Barking Dogs), creating a surreal atmosphere that forces the listener to pay close attention. On the album’s industrial opening track “Endzone,” Qadiri samples a live recording of the 2014 Ferguson protests, where an armored policeman states into a megaphone: “You are no longer peacefully assembling. Return to your homes or you will be subject to arrest.” The fact that this audio is used in Brute’s introductory track makes the later use of gunshot and police siren sound effects all the more haunting, as their incorporation suggests the potential for devastating violence in a setting of civil disobedience. The album also features snippets of broadcast coverage from the Occupy Wall Street protests, an interview with a former LAPD sergeant about the overwhelming power that police officers possess, and a small audio clip of Alex Jones yelling about being on “the front lines of the Infowars.” During the Ferguson protests, Al Qadiri remembers watching the terrifying events unfold on the news from her home country of Kuwait, where she was bedridden with a broken knee. She chose to include these audio samples in the project “just to illustrate the context, to set the tone.” This careful consideration directed towards the balance of information and atmosphere is an essential component of what makes Brute so successful as a piece of scathing protest music since it isn’t addressing a specific person, but a universal idea.
Even while the subject of the project is a relatively American topic, Qadiri intended to make the instrumentals “universal” so listeners around the world could identify with the tone of the project. Al Qadiri isn’t just creating soundscapes that are evocative of authoritarian protest suppression, nor is she limiting herself to a critique solely of the American police state. Brute manages to come across as fiercely unambiguous and undeniably universal at the same time. The samples that Qadiri includes in Brute are used to the same effect as quotes in an academic essay; to provide greater context, to set an established tone, and to expand on the overall message of the project. Once again, Qadiri doesn’t tell us what’s wrong with authoritarian policing, she illustrates it through her hauntingly industrial instrumental compositions and her inclusion of foreboding vocal samples that condemn the militarization of the police force.
The album cover of Brute, widely recognized as one of the best record covers of 2016, is another crucial aspect of what makes the record such a cohesive examination of protest suppression. The cover is a photograph of a sculpture created by artist and political activist Josh Kline. The work was initially a part of Kline’s “Freedom” exhibit at the New Museum in New York. Brute’s cover is emblazoned with the unsettling visage of a Teletubby in full riot gear, smoke and scattered bits of light floating in the air behind its head. By taking something seemingly innocent and innocuous and reappropriating it into something to be feared, Kline’s sculpture plays into many widely held conceptions about the police, and his work is consistent with the themes present on Al Qadiri’s Brute. While the picture on the cover is immediately striking, it services the record itself on more levels than simply the aesthetic. Kline’s cover incorporates an essential component of protesting; the striking imagery that comes as the result of perverting a symbol of power. This artistic approach is in keeping with how Qadiri represents police and the act of riot suppression throughout Brute. In almost every aspect, be it tonal, textual, or thematic, Kline’s “Freedom” exhibit fits Fatima Al Qadiri’s Brute like a glove. The two of them generate greater meaning from their relation to the other, and each artist’s work elevates the other’s giving it new meaning and making the record itself all the more personal for Qadiri.
While Brute is an album critiquing the overinflated state of American policing, much of the project’s instrumental inspiration was born out of Fatima Al Qadiri’s tumultuous upbringing in Gulf-War era Kuwait. In a deeply revealing first-person essay published through The Fader after the release of her album, Al Qadiri details a childhood spent trying to balance the fundamentalist religious views of her grandmother with the more modern perspectives of her parents. Al Qadiri’s grandmother, a devout Muslim, believed music to be haram, or forbidden in Islam, while her parents could barely sit still in a car without music playing. Qadiri herself started making music when she was nine years old, around the time that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. By choosing to disobey her Grandmother’s wishes, the simple act of listening to and creating her own music became a form of protest for Qadiri. She used music as a method of escape from the overwhelming political violence overtaking her home country. She likens growing up during Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait to witnessing and surviving an apocalypse, detailing that she also used video games to escape from these unfortunate circumstances: “I was desperately seeking an alternative reality and found it in games. It was a reality I controlled, one that was simple and non-adult. Inside it, I could regenerate my life infinitely and play in a closed loop, cushioned by 8-bit melodies.” After seven brutal months of occupation, Kuwait was finally liberated in early 1991, and Qadiri’s family chose to uproot themselves from the devastated country.
With the entire family packed into their car, Qadiri’s parents didn’t want to offend her grandmother’s religious sensibilities, so her father chose to play a CD of Gregorian chants in lieu of any music. Above all else, this particular drive out of a burning Kuwait served as a massive personal inspiration for Al Qadiri on Brute: ”I've been consciously and unconsciously writing an internal soundtrack for that car journey ever since, attempting to capture the range of emotions I felt. Something about Gregorian chant and 8-bit video game choirs converged in me at that moment. An epiphany that the human choir is the greatest sound on earth, and all its manifestations—real, artificial, and distorted—are all equally beautiful, illuminating every edge of our past and current realities.” With Brute, Fatima Al Qadiri is investigating the universal by way of the personal. In attempting to encapsulate the feelings of fear, confusion, displacement, and chaos that come as a result of over-authoritarian protest suppression, Al Qadiri reached back into her own experiences and allowed them to inform her artistic choices on the project. By approaching this topic from a deeply personal perspective on Brute, Al Qadiri enhances the impact of her message and makes the project a more fully realized examination of political dissonance.
What separates Fatima Al Qadiri’s Brute from other so-called protest albums isn’t what she’s saying on the project, it’s what she chooses to omit. The album isn’t taking any sides, nor is it naming any names. It is an album born out of turmoil and dissension, informed by personal experiences but intended to reflect universal ones. Fatima Al Qadiri isn’t telling us what the issues are and how to feel about them. She is forcing us to examine them for ourselves and draw our own conclusions. As general political discourse has trended farther and farther away from any kind of subtlety, so has the protest music created in response. In light of this, Al Qadiri’s work on Brute stands even taller as an exemplary piece of urgent and brilliantly crafted protest music.